John Gaps III/Genesis Photos for WORLD

Setting their own limits

Education | 'Unschooling' and traditional Christian homeschooling are two very different things

Issue: "2012: The Year Ahead," Jan. 14, 2012

For Bethany Drury, an Iowa State University senior, school was whatever she wanted it to be. She was "unschooled"-a homeschooled child with complete control over her education.

Drury focused her education on horses, the outdoors, and veterinary studies. She watched National Geographic specials and read library books on her favorite subjects.

When Drury began attending Iowa State, she faced new difficulties: "I got to college loving to learn, seeking information ... but there were things I didn't want to focus on when I was younger, like math and chemistry, so when I got to college, I wasn't prepared for them." Drury struggled to focus during study time. She could not sit for long, and frequently switched subjects or took breaks. But she had never learned another study method: "It never occurred to me that there was any other way to do it."

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The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that one-third of the 1.5-2 million homeschoolers in the United States are unschooled. But unschooling's philosophy of education differs substantially from traditional homeschooling, and should pose some concerns for Christian parents.

Unschoolers operate under the same state laws that regulate homeschoolers, but their philosophies and approaches to learning can vary significantly. Unschooling is a "radical" version of homeschooling; it gives children complete control over their subjects, schedule, and interests. If children do not want to learn science, they do not have to. If they enjoy art, literature, or computer programming, they can spend all their time pursuing that subject.

Nineteen-year-old unschooler Shane Stranahan did not learn to divide until age 12. He began attending community college philosophy and literature classes at age 16. Before he was 18, he spent a year in Canada building log cabins and learning how to farm. This fall he has backpacked across Europe and harvested grapes in France.

Shane's father, filmmaker and writer Lee Stranahan, calls it "natural learning ... organic, as opposed to arbitrary. ... In traditional school, learning is a chore you do during certain hours, during certain times of the year."

Unschooling mom Joyce Fetteroll writes on her blog, Joyfully Rejoycing, "The goals of unschooling are different than all the other methods. ... The goal of unschooling is not education. It is to help a child be who she is and blossom into who she will become. ... Learning happens as a side effect."

In the most radical forms of unschooling, this freedom permeates children's entire life: they control their bedtimes, meals, and chores. On her blog, Fetteroll writes that children should sculpt their own lives and parents should give them what they want: If "they are happy and free and are making these choices because it brings them joy, then we should trust that it really is what they want or need right now. ... We need to trust that when it is enough for them, then they will stop. Their 'enough' may be different from where ours is."

The difference in discernment about "enough" is exactly what concerns some Christian parents. Blogger Cathy Koetsier explored unschooling and liked its child-directed learning philosophy, but she wondered how to reconcile unschooling with Christian motherhood. After reading Psalm 23, she wrote on her website, Christian-Unschooling.com, that Christian unschooling should be described as a large pasture encircled by a strong boundary fence: "The pasture is the place of freedom. ... The fence is the principle and instruction of God's Word."

Christian unschoolers try to meld the limit-free teaching methods of unschooling with structured biblical parenting. Elissa Wahl, co-author of Christian Unschooling: Growing Your Children in the Freedom of Christ, writes on her site, Christian-Unschooling.blogspot.com, that "Unschooling in my house is not unparenting. ...Although I am pretty radical in my educational beliefs, they do not carry over to letting the children do whatever they want, whenever, with no consequences. That would be unbiblical."

But when it comes to school, Wahl does believe in letting her children do "whatever they want. ... If they want to learn about rockets for 5 years, or 5 minutes, that's OK with me!"

Koetsier writes, "Unschooling is the freedom to learn what you want to learn, when you want to learn it, how you want to learn it, where you want to learn it, and for your own reasons." She does not believe this method will nurture willful or disobedient children. She thinks that respecting her children's natural abilities to learn will result in "a rich adventure of discovery that ultimately brings us ... closer to one another and to our God, the Creator of all."

Combining unschooling and biblical understanding of child raising is hard, though, because unschooling grew out of the work of author John Holt, an atheist who argued that parents who exercise discipline "probably destroy as many good qualities as we develop, do at least as much harm as good." In his book How Children Fail, Holt says teachers should not tell children they are wrong, under any circumstances, because that undermines their self-confidence: "We adults destroy most of the intellectual and creative capacity of children ... by making them afraid ... of not pleasing, of making mistakes, of failing, of being wrong."


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